You read a lot these days about research showing that practicing gratitude — making a deliberate point of being grateful for the good things in your life — has all sorts of benefits for happiness and well-being. These articles usually end with a call to start a gratitude journal to reap the full benefits of being thankful.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But we should keep in mind gratitude’s other, arguably even more important purpose: strengthening our relationships with those we rely on.
Historically, most of the research has focused on gratitude’s social function, not its impact on our brains. This body of research has found that, to put it bluntly, expressing gratitude to someone who helps you keeps them interested and invested in having a relationship with you over the long haul. It makes their time, effort, and inconvenience seem worth it.
In the same vein, there is nothing quite like ingratitude to sour an otherwise happy relationship. It’s not difficult for most of us to recall a time when we were shocked at how unappreciative and thoughtless someone was in response to our generosity. (If you are a parent, chances are you only have to think back to this morning’s breakfast.) Without some sort of acknowledgement, people very quickly stop wanting to help you. In fact, in a set of studies by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino, when someone wasn’t thanked for their help, their future rates of helping people were immediately cut in half.
Gratitude is a glue that binds you and your benefactor together, allowing you to hit the same well over and over again, knowing that support won’t run dry.
At least, gratitude can be that glue if you do it right. Recent research suggests that people often make a critical mistake when expressing gratitude: They focus on how they feel — how happy they are, how they have benefited from the help — rather than focusing on the benefactor.